By Jasmine M. Ellis
In the age of #SayHerName and #BlackLivesMatter social justice movements, black women have played a key role in protesting injustice across the country. Dedicated to changing the U.S. political and racial climate, they have demanded their voices be heard, while demanding change.
However, black women have been noticeably absent from many conversations surrounding feminism and civil rights. This sense of absenteeism is called “erasure,” referring to a group of people whose lived experiences are ignored by society and unaddressed by social policy. Even in historic social justice movements, black women have fought for acknowledgment: During 1960s civil rights movement and women’s movement of the ’70s, their voices were often muted in favor of black male voices or white women’s needs. For example, Dorothy Height, of the National Council of Negro Women, was not allowed to speak at the 1963 March on Washington, though she did share the podium with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
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“If you look historically or even today, most of the well-known spokespersons for most activist groups are men,” said Ariana Johnson, a student at the University of Illinois at Chicago. “Even if the group wasn’t started by men, it’s usually men who are seen as the leaders. I definitely think that women’s voices aren’t heard as much just because we’re not seen as aggressive or as able to do our job.”
In the quest for justice for black male victims of police brutality, such as Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and Eric Garner in New York, feminist activists have noticed black women in similar situations have been ignored in this public conversation. This spawned the #SayHerName hashtag, to call attention to the stories of women like Chicago’s Rekia Boyd, shot and killed in 2012 by an off-duty Chicago police officer.
In Chicago, where a collective of activists have mounted days and weeks of protests against outgoing State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Mayor Rahm Emanuel, black women have played a critical role in organizing and messaging. And, in fact, Black Lives Matter was founded by women who were determined to uplift unheard voices within the black community, such as women and LGBT people.
“Some obstacles that I face being a black woman and being an activist is people just not really taking you serious,” said Ebony Hagler, a canvasser with The People’s Lobby. “You’re kind of stereotyped. Young. Black. You’re probably out here not really doing nothing with yourself.”